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John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry

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in this project we honor these men and their families


John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was an attempt by white abolitionist John Brown to start an armed slave revolt by seizing a United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in 1859.

Twenty-one individuals joined him; of different backgrounds and occupations, rich, poor, black, white, some born free and others born into bondage; men with many differences joined in one common goal - - to end slavery. Knowing the risks, they joined Brown’s Provisional Army and sixteen gave their lives with the hope that four million slaves would one day be free.

“I am dying for freedom. I could not die for a better cause. I had rather die than be a slave.”

Just after sundown on the evening of Sunday October 16, 1859 John Brown led a group of 21 men (16 white and 5 black) across the Potomac River from Maryland to Virginia. Their immediate objective was the capture of the cache of weapons stored at the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown's ultimate goal was to destroy the slave system of the South. The arms captured by the raid would allow Brown and his followers to establish a stronghold in the near-by mountains from which they could attack slaveholders and draw liberated slaves into their ranks.

Brown's raid attained initial success. Slashing the telegraph wires to cut off the town from the outside world, the raiders captured the local armory, arsenal and rifle manufacturing plant. They then rounded up 60 townspeople as hostages. Unfortunately, the raiders were unsuccessful in their attempt to isolate the town. A B&O Railroad train was detained as it passed through, but allowed to continue on its journey to Baltimore. Once it reached its destination, the alarm was raised and federal troops sent to the rescue. In the meantime, the local militia surrounded the town preventing the raiders' escape. Realizing his predicament, John Brown led his men, along with nine hostages, to the small fire engine house adjacent to the armory.

Federal forces arrived on Monday evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day, seriously wounding Brown. He was tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown uttered a prophetic forewarning of the coming Civil War:

"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."

John Brown's raid and subsequent trial inflamed the dispute between the country's abolitionist and pro-slavery factions hardening the lines that separated the North and the South.

1 Titles assigned to the men by John Brown

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